Linguistic and Biological Diversity: Patterns of Co-occurrence and Opportunities for Coordinated Conservation

Researchers from a range of disciplines frequently remind us of the enormous challenges that Earth will face in the coming decades. Climate change, unprecedented levels of human population, enormous amounts of resource extraction to meet the needs of that population, widespread pollution, and other characteristics of the 21st century will present humans and the other species that share our planet with conditions that, at the very least, will make life much more difficult in many places. In response to such warnings, an increasing number of studies seek solutions that will not only help us to survive, but also to maintain those parts of our world that are particularly valuable for all life. The research we describe here seeks to measure the degree to which regions of global significance for nature are also of global significance for culture, in part to provide a foundation for more effective conservation of both.

This research merges two major areas of inquiry, one examining biological diversity and the other examining linguistic-cultural diversity. One can measure biological diversity—or biodiversity—in several ways, ranging from large scales such as ecosystems to very small scales using genetics. We focused on a medium scale and considered the number of species, including endemic species (those unique to a particular locality), as a useful indicator of biodiversity. Cultural diversity, in contrast, presents a greater challenge for definition given the fundamental challenge of defining culture itself. Here we chose language as a key characteristic marking a culture, the main means of conveying the shared behavior characterizing a particular culture among its members as well as the primary mechanism for transmitting cultural behavior and knowledge from one generation to the next. We focused in particular on non-migrant indigenous languages, those linked to a particular locality and culture rather than those transplanted through colonization or some other process (such as English in the United States). Both biological diversity and linguistic diversity have been studied for decades, as has their co-occurrence. Our research seeks to measure connections between the two in regions containing particularly high levels of biodiversity and to identify opportunities (and possibly strategies) to conserve both biological and linguistic-cultural diversity in our rapidly changing world.

Linguistic Diversity in Regions of High Biological Diversity

Researchers define geographic priorities for biodiversity conservation in a variety of ways. One approach considers biodiversity hotspots, regions containing exceptionally large numbers of endemic species as well as high levels of threat to those species. Technically, hotspots contain minimally 1,500 endemic plant species and have lost at least 70% of their natural habitat (Myers et al. 2000). In plain language, these are regions that host enormous varieties of plant types unique to those regions amid widespread human impacts; if an endemic species disappears from a hotspot, it becomes extinct globally. Currently there are 36 hotspots, though when we conducted the study described here there were 35 (Mittermeier et al. 2004; Williams et al. 2011) (Figure 1). We supplemented our examination of the hotspots with five high biodiversity wilderness areas, large regions also characterized by large numbers of endemics but suffering lower human impact by having lost 30% or less of their natural habitat (Mittermeier et al. 2003). The importance of conserving these regions is enormous: nearly 70% of vascular plant species and more than 50% of vertebrate species on Earth exist only in the hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas.Biodiversity hotspots_CEiBaFigure 1. Biodiversity hotspots (1-Atlantic Forest; 2-California Floristic Province; 3-Cape Floristic Region; 4-Caribbean Islands; 5-Caucasus; 6-Cerrado; 7-Chilean Winter Rainfall-Valdivian Forests; 8-Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa; 9-East Melanesian Islands; 10-Eastern Afromontane; 11-Forests of East Australia; 12-Guinean Forests of West Africa; 13-Himalaya; 14-Horn of Africa; 15-Indo-Burma; 16-Irano-Anatolian; 17-Japan; 18-Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands; 19- Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands; 20-Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany; 21-Mediterranean Basin; 22-Mesoamerica; 23-Mountains of Central Asia; 24-Mountains of Southwest China; 25-New Caledonia; 26-NewZealand; 27- Philippines; 28-Polynesia-Micronesia; 29-Southwest Australia; 30-Succulent Karoo; 31-Sundaland; 32- Tropical Andes; 33-Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena; 34-Wallacea; 35-Western Ghats and Sri Lanka) and high biodiversity wilderness areas (36-Amazonia; 37-Congo Forests; 38-Miombo-Mopane Woodlands and Savannas; 39-New Guinea; 40-North American Deserts)

The definition of the regions we examined rests solely on biological indicators, so one would not necessarily expect any particularly important cultural content.

Indigenous languages and endemic indigenous languages occurring in high biodiversity regions
Figure2. Indigenous languages and endemic indigenous languages occurring in high biodiversity regions.

But when we examined the biodiversity hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas we found that of the roughly 6,900 languages spoken on Earth more than 4,800 occurred in these regions of high biological diversity (Gorenflo et al. 2012; see also Gorenflo et al. 2014). This co-occurrence was quite striking: nearly 70% of languages spoken on our planet occurred on about 25% of the terrestrial surface, the same areas where many of the species also occurred. The numbers of languages varied considerably, with smaller numbers tending to occur in biodiversity regions in temperate regions that had been colonized, mainly by Europeans, and experienced higher indigenous language loss (Figure 2).


Many languages were unique to the hotspots and high biodiversity wilderness areas—nearly 3,500, again varying by region (see Figure 2). And many of the languages were endangered, which in this study we identified by 10,000 or fewer and 1,000 or fewer speakers (Figure 3). About 2,800 of the languages occurring in the regions of high biodiversity had 10,000 or fewer speakers, while more than 1,200 languages had 1,000 or fewer speakers. Some hotspots like the East Melanesian Islands have more than 100 languages spoken by 1,000 or fewer speakers, including some with only a handful

Endangered indigenous languages occurring in high biodiversity regions based on 10,000 and 1,000
Figure 3. Endangered indigenous languages occurring in high biodiversity regions based on 10,000 and 1,000 speaker thresholds.

of speakers, for example Araki  and Mafea in Vanuatu. Similarly, the New Guinea Wilderness area, which has the greatest number of endemic languages, has more than 400 languages with fewer than 1,000 speakers, such as Kowiai and Saponi in West Papua, Indonesia. In the interest of examining co-occurrence of linguistic and biological diversity at a more refined geographic scale, we examined the presence of indigenous languages within the ranges of endangered amphibians and in protected areas in the regions of high biodiversity. Once again, the numbers were quite high: 68% of endangered amphibians occurring in regions of high biodiversity co-occurred with at least one indigenous language in those same regions, while 46% of the protected areas in those regions shared at least part of its geographic space with an indigenous language. Speakers of indigenous languages are well placed to engage in the conservation of certain species as well as many protected areas in regions containing much of the world’s biodiversity.

Why are the above results important? There are three reasons. First, co-occurrence of biological and linguistic diversity defines geographic priorities that appear to be important for the conservation of both nature and culture. Second, marked levels of linguistic diversity in most high biodiversity regions suggest some sort of relationship between indigenous languages and biological diversity, though presently we do not understand the reason for this link and it may vary among regions or localities within regions. Finally, if there is a connection between linguistic and biological diversity, a common (or at least coordinated) strategy for the conservation of culture and nature may also be possible. The possibility for addressing important cultural and natural conservation challenges in a limited number of localities using some sort of coordinated strategy seems important, particularly in a world rapidly losing diversity in both spheres, and where the successful conservation of one may well require the successful conservation of the other.

Opportunities to Conserve Significant Nature and Culture: UNESCO World Heritage Sites 

Given the results of our earlier research, we began to seek evidence for where coordinated conservation solutions for biodiversity and language-culture might occur. It seemed that one approach would be to identify localities—protected areas—that hosted important natural content as well as indigenous language(s) and would attract considerable attention from any coordinated conservation efforts. We decided to examine World Heritage Sites (WHSs) defined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Our focus was UNESCO WHSs defined based on their natural content, which we will call Natural WHSs. UNESCO defines Natural WHSs as reserves that contain physical or biological formations, habitat for threatened plant or animal species, or natural scientific, conservation, or aesthetic elements of outstanding universal value (UNESCO and Intergovernmental Committee for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, 2017). UNESCO also defines WHSs that contained mixed natural and cultural elements of outstanding universal value, and we included these sites as Natural WHSs as well. Natural WHSs possess high global visibility, thereby providing protected areas that could receive considerable attention were conservation actions successfully implemented that focus on both indigenous culture and nature.

When we published a study on Natural WHSs in 2017, we examined indigenous language presence in the 238 Natural WHSs listed at that time, 203 based on natural content and 35 based on mixed natural-cultural content (Romaine and Gorenflo 2017) (Figure 4a). More than 78% of the Natural WHSs co-occurred with at least one indigenous language, and in all 445 indigenous languages shared at least part of their ranges with a Natural WHS (Figure 4b). Asia and Africa featured particularly large amounts of indigenous language co-occurrence with Natural WHSs, though co-occurrence occurred elsewhere as well.

UNESCO Natural WHSs and indigenous languages co-occurring with Natural WHSs
Figure 4. UNESCO Natural WHSs (a), and indigenous languages co-occurring with Natural WHSs (b)

We also examined Natural WHSs categorized as endangered by UNESCO, reserves under threat due both to ascertained dangers and potential dangers from a variety of causes (UNESCO and Intergovernmental Committee for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage 2017). And we examined languages in danger of disappearing, either due to reduced transmission from one generation to the next or to relatively small numbers of speakers, the latter criterion employing the same thresholds of 10,000 or fewer speakers and 1,000 or fewer speakers discussed above. UNESCO classified 18 Natural WHSs as endangered in 2017 (Figure 5a); we found that 90 indigenous languages co-occurred with these WHSs, most instances occurring in Africa and Asia (Romaine and Gorenflo 2017) (Figure 5b). Of those 90 languages, 13 were spoken by 10,000 or fewer, two were spoken by 1,000 or fewer, and 12 had reduced intergenerational transmission. For instance, Allar and Mannan, two languages that co-occur with the Western Ghats Natural WHS in southwestern India, both have limited inter-generational transmission (each classified under EGIDS as “endangered”) and are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people. Co-occurrences of endangered WHSs and languages mark high localities of particular importance, notably opportunities to conserve important places where nature or indigenous culture (or both) are under threat.

Endangered UNESCO Natural WHSs and indigenous languages co-occurring with Endangered Natural WHSs
Figure 5. Endangered UNESCO Natural WHSs (a), and indigenous languages co-occurring with Endangered Natural WHSs (b)

The results of this analysis themselves make a strong case for considering UNESCO Natural WHSs as localities where one might explore integrated conservation actions. In the 2017 paper, we suggested that the management of such high visibility sites would benefit from engaging local indigenous peoples, soliciting official input and guidance from the people(s) who are responsible, often, for the existence of these noteworthy reserves in the first place. We briefly discussed examples of involving indigenous people in the management of WHSs and other reserves in Australia, a nation actively engaging indigenous culture in protected area conservation.

Concluding Remarks

It is ironic in many ways that the incredible growth on Earth currently underway should be accompanied by disappearing diversity along several fronts. The decline in biodiversity is so rapid, and with such devastating potential, that researchers refer to these times as the sixth great global extinction (Barnosky et al. 2011). In contrast, some linguists reckon that at current rates of extinction 50-90% of the languages spoken on the planet will disappear by the end of the current century (Nettle and Romaine 2000). Such rapid disappearance of biological and linguistic-cultural diversity is shocking, and with a rapidly growing global human footprint due to an increase both in population and per capita demand will not slow in the absence of specific efforts to conserve both forms of diversity.

Our study of indigenous language occurrence in regions containing high biological diversity revealed that many of these areas host large numbers of such languages. If such co-occurrence indicates some sort of functional relationship, successfully conserving one form of diversity may aid in the conservation of the other. Joint efforts could occur in certain high visibility protected areas, such as UNESCO Natural WHSs. The majority of these sites host at least one indigenous language, in some cases many. Because of the national and international attention they receive, Natural WHSs likely would be eligible for more funding for expanded conservation efforts that seek to maintain both culture and nature. Moreover, conservation actions at such locations would receive international attention, helping to diffuse any evidence of successful coordinated conservation efforts to other localities.

Results of the research described above led us to seek solutions to managing protected areas that conserve both biological and linguistic-cultural diversity. One approach is to engage local indigenous people in the conservation of reserves. This strategy employs community conservation, an approach promoted widely over the past two decades as an alternative to more conventional, top-down conservation where a national or local government agency designs and manages protected areas, usually excluding local stakeholders. Involving indigenous people in managing reserves, probably through some sort of co-management scheme, would integrate invested local people who are key components of the ecosystems where those reserves occur. Maintaining those ecosystems presumably would contribute to maintaining resident indigenous cultural systems, possibly augmented by providing additional programs such as language revitalization to enhance cultural conservation further. Monitoring results on both biodiversity and cultural fronts will determine if this is an effective strategy, and if it is worth diffusing this solution from high visibility sites to other protected areas.

At UNESCO’s 43rd session of the World Heritage Committee in July 2019, indigenous peoples stressed that language is key to safeguarding World Heritage, conveying values and traditional ecological knowledge that can make site conservation and management more effective ( The United Nations’ (n.d.) declaration of the International Year of Indigenous Languages in 2019 provides a timely, synergistic opportunity to integrate speakers of indigenous languages into standard planning and management strategies for World Heritage sites.


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About Author :

L.J. Gorenflo and Suzanne RomaineL.J. Gorenflo1 and Suzanne Romaine2                                          




1. Pennsylvania State University, United States of America []

2. Oxford University, United Kingdom []


Junipers of Ziarat – a living heritage for the humanity

Far from the Arabian sea, the arid rugged terrain of west Pakistan and adjoining Afghanistan poses a challenge for human being to make a living out of it. This apparently not so amiable feature of the Earth takes a break at Ziarat, where resides one of the largest and oldest Juniper forests in the world.

Map of Ziarat valley, Balochistan
Figure 1: Map of Ziarat valley, Balochistan

Located in the periphery of Quetta (133 km) – the provincial capital of Balochistan, at an altitude of 2449 meters above sea level, Ziarat is a famous tourist resort, an escaping gateway for Pakistani and international tourists especially during summer (Figure 1). Literally, Ziarat means, “Shrine” and the place is associated with Kharwari Baba, a local saint who is known to have rested in the valley and blessed it.

Covering an area of approximately 110,000 ha, Ziarat has an envious collections of Junipers which are ranked second largest in the world, after juniper forests of California, USA. The place has a global value and significance due to the presence of older-aged native Juniper tree species, its slow growth rate, insignificant regeneration and associated socio-cultural perspectives (Khan 2013). The species are enlisted as the oldest living trees on the planet (Figure 2). Around 54 species of junipers have been reported from across the globe, six of these including Juniperus excelsa are found in a mixture in northern Pakistan. Balochistan has one of

Juniper trees in Ziarat valley
Figure 2: Juniper trees in Ziarat valley

the largest remaining tracks of pure Juniperus excelsa forests that has worldwide significance and value. Although, detailed dendrochronological studies have not been conducted till date however an estimation of the age of a mature tree here is reported to exceed almost 1500 years, and therefore, these trees are locally termed as the “Living Forest Fossils” (Atta 2000, Atta et al. 2012).

Ziarat is also noteworthy for its animal inhabitants. The mountain range, such as Khalifat, is home to some of the most treasured wildlife species of global significance including Suleiman markhor (Capra falconeri jerdoni), Balochistan urial (Ovis vignei blanfordi)(Figure 3a and b),

Suleiman markhor in Ziarat
Figure 3a: Suleiman markhor in Ziarat

Black bear (Ursus thibetanus gedrosianus), Grey wolf (Canis lupus), and near threatened Afghan mole‐vole (Ellobius fuscocapillus)(Roberts 1997) . Along with the high profile members, there are Afghan Pica, foxes, jackals and several species of migratory birds. However, like any other part of the world, here also the wildlife habitats have become largely fragmented and encroached due to various anthropological factors including illegal hunting, human habitation and livestock grazing.

The Juniper ecosystem is the lifeline for the region. It supports the living of other organisms including humans in the valley through invaluable ecosystem services. Along with junipers, so far, 54 plant species have been recorded from the area of which more than 50% are

Balochistan urial in Ziarat
Figure 3b: Balochistan urial in Ziarat

known for high medicinal and ethno‐botanical value, and are being used by locals as panacea to treat various ailments. Besides, the ecosystem regulates aquifers such as Narhi river by protecting the watersheds in the catchment areas that ensures availability of water to the local human settlements in Nahri River Basin. These forests also play an important role in economic development and environmental stability of Ziarat, through provisioning of ecosystem services and goods, which include food, fuel, fiber, shelter, medicine for local communities alongside fodder and grazing grounds for their livestock, while protecting them against the climatic hazards such as snow avalanches, wind storms, floods and droughts through buffering and watershed protection. The ecosystem has a myriad presence of primary producers, nutrient cycling, soil formation, wildlife habitat and landscapes, that offer tremendous non‐material yet aesthetic, spiritual, educational bequest and heritage of high value for humanity – locals and foreigners alike.

Old juniper tree in Ziarat
Figure 4a : Old juniper tree in Ziarat

The communities living in and around the area, mostly Pushtuns, Baloch and Brahuis, often joined by Afghan nomads, are mostly dependent on juniper forest ecosystem services and products for their livelihood. For instance, the water generated through recharge of ground aquifer supports agricultural productivity for human consumption. Ziarat is reputed for the production of high quality stone fruits like many varieties of apples, cherries, peaches, pears, plums and walnuts, which are consumed and marketed locally as well as exported abroad. Likewise, the barren arid rangelands help

Ziarat valley during winter
Figure 4b: Ziarat valley during winter

in soil conservation and support livestock production by local and nomadic herders alike. The aesthetic landscape created by Juniper forests also encourages tourism in the area and sustains livelihood of local communities associated with it (Figure 4a and b). In addition, the forests and grasslands are an important carbon pool with global ecological benefits, accumulated over the decades. Interestingly, Juniper trees are also used as a tool to fulfill certain cultural obligations like erection of poles at both ends of graves, making of cradles, use of juniper poles for display of trophies, fire play at important occasions like marriages and festivities, which somehow pose threats to these living fossils.

It is one of the three internationally recognized ecosystems in Pakistan that are fragile and vulnerable to natural and anthropogenic stressors. These are perhaps the oldest forest treasures with tremendous scientific, geo-ecological and cultural significance for the local and international community. Few things are known, if any, about the ages of the trees, their                                                                     ecological and socio‐cultural relationships, the religions and faiths that it has seen; and the behavior and attitudes of people and their generations that have been living within and around these forests but there is still a lot unknown about the natural dynamics of this ecosystem, the species, genetic resources and habitat types, especially in the socio‐cultural context of the history. The Juniper trees, belonging to one of the oldest age groups, might tell a lot about the climate change over the past centuries. This opportunity is rarely available elsewhere. The way this ecosystem and its biodiversity have responded to human pressures and uses is worthy of investigation. Dwarf Mistletoe has destroyed a large chunk of juniper forests (Atta et al. 2010). The international community is not aware of the causes yet, and do not know its destructive potential for similar situations elsewhere. The agro ecological habitat in the Juniper forest ecosystem is passing through various ecological evolutionary stages. Comprehensive investigations on such aspects may open new doors for the better and in-depth understanding of the importance of these age old forests.

Juniper trees, being a substantial part of the biodiversity, supports communities of fauna and flora. Obviously, with the loss of Juniper forests and disturbance to habitats, all associated species; endemic and endangered like Suleiman markhor, Balochistan urial, Black bear, Grey wolf and near threatened Afghan mole‐vole etc., may disappear eventually (IUCN-Pakistan 1994). In view of their multiple functions and the threats faced there is dire need to protect and rehabilitate Juniper forests of Balochistan in general and that of Ziarat in particular for the existence, survival and prosperity of human populations.


  1. Atta M S. 2000. Population Structure and Regeneration Potential of Juniper forests in Baluchistan Province, Pakistan. Ph.D. thesis submitted to the University of Baluchistan, Quetta, Pakistan.
  2. Atta M S, N. Khan, M. Wahab and A.Kakar, 2010. New Spread of dwarf Mistletoe (Arceuthobium oxycedri) in Juniper Forest, Ziarat, Baluchistan, Pakistan. Pak. J. Bot., 42(6): 3709-3714.
  3. Atta M S, Ahmed M, ALIA A, Lubna T, and Syed U J. The ecology and dynamics of Juniperus excels forest in Balochistan. Pak. J. Bot., 44(5): 1617-1625.
  4. IUCN Pakistan. 1994. Programme for conservation of Juniper Forests through community participation (PAK/98/G41) GEF Project Brief.1-55.
  5. Khan AA. 2013. Ziarat Juniper Biosphere Reserve – Management Plan, IUCN Pakistan, pages 46+
  6. Roberts T J. 1997. The mammals of Pakistan (revised ed.). Oxford University Press. Karachi, Pakistan, pages 525.


About Author:

Babar Khan and Yahya MusakhelBabar Khan1 and Yahya Musakhel2






1 World Wide Fund for Nature Pakistan, 46 K, PECHS, Block VI, Karachi, Pakistan []

2 Food and Agriculture Organization, Chilgoza Project, Quetta, Pakistan []

Small edible fishes of eastern India: consequences of their declining diversity

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish………..big fish big fish…..but no small fish! Yes, a key portion of small fish has already eluded our plate, so from their wild habitat. Thanks to organized fresh

Indigenous small fishes were in plenty even a decade ago in rural Bengal during mid June to November every year
Figure 1. Indigenous small fishes were in plenty even a decade ago in rural Bengal during mid-June to November every year

water aquaculture that homogeneously produced big fish only objectively eradicating small native fish species that once were abound in various water bodies of eastern India. A bit of data check from the report of National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources (NBFGR), Lucknow indicated that out of 2246 fish species in India 765 are from our freshwater ecosystem.  Of which, around four hundred fifty small edible fishes (which grow up to 25-30 cm at adult stage of lifecycle) are distributed throughout the country in about 2.4 million hectares of ponds and tanks and 1.3 million hectares of beels, jheels and other wetlands, in addition to 0.1 million km of irrigation canals and 2.0 million hectares of reservoirs and deep water paddy field ecosystem (Gopakumar 2003). These small fishes including minor carps, catfishes, perch, murrels, eels, featherbacks, cichlids are our potential renewable bio-resource. These were abundantly available in eastern India even a decade ago in our rural ponds, low-lying paddy field environs, and similar wetland areas mostly with the onset of south-west monsoon till the end November every year. Most families in rural Bengal in particular loved to depend on such species as source of household nourishment and for livelihood support including aquarium fish trade (Figure 1) (Morales et al. 2002).

Declining trend of natural population and concerns: The scenario started changing from 1980s with the introduction of modified aquaculture practices consisting of three major carp species rohu (Labeo rohita), catla (Catla catla), mrigal (Cirrhinus mrigala) and three exotic species

Application of de-oiled Mahua seed powder to kill the small fishes to begin the polyculture system of large carps in ponds even today
Figure 2. Application of de-oiled Mahua seed powder to kill the small fishes to begin the polyculture system of large carps in ponds even today

silver carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix), grass carp (Ctenopharyngodon idellus) and the common carp (Cyprinus carpio) together called composite carp culture system. The first task of the introduction of such a new culture system was to methodically eliminate these naturally occurring small ones as ‘trash’ or ‘weed’ fishes with application of mohua oil cake (though this acts as a poison initially and kill the unwanted fishes (but  becomes a manure at the end to promote growth of planktonic organisms) to reduce competition for food, dissolved oxygen and space (in the lentic-type of our freshwater ecosystem) between large carp and these small local fish varieties (Figure 2) (personal observation). Extensive and continuous efforts are being channelized even today following the same principle of growing large fishes at the cost of small fishes. It is also accompanied by the development of intensive fish culture technology to augment large fish production beyond the natural carrying capacity of the water bodies. Other factors include, exogenous application of supplementary feed (ideally, it should complement the contribution by the available natural edible organisms in water and contingent on deficiency in meeting the fish’s nutrient needs), water exchange, provision of aeration supply, use of chemical fertilizer and adoption of prophylactic measures (deliberate occasional introduction of pesticides like malathion, an organophosphorus insecticide, scheduled drugs and antibiotics to control parasitic and other diseases). These are performed in tandem to the development of multiple reproduction technique, and growth enhancement of carp species through selective breeding and marker assisted selection. In doing all these, dissemination of potential benefits to society at large and formulating conservation and management strategies for propagation of these diverse small freshwater fish species are compromised miserably and thus remain unrecognized in aquaculture activity. This is despite the fact that these small fishes are capable of contributing towards varietal diversity on daily food plate mainly for those living in urban or suburban areas and in rural region providing them with formidable amount of very high nutritional value. This offers larger benefits in terms of nutritional security by enhancing micronutrient availability which is vital for healthy growth of children especially when ‘hidden hunger’ lurking on global population.

Thus, reduction in biodiversity of many small freshwater fishes is a matter of great concern. While primary driver of this decline is large fish production for commercial gain there are other actors too, e.g., habitat shrinking resulting from anthropogenic stress, wetland area reduction due to encroachment, surface run off contamination from pest control measures in agricultural fields sprayed with agrochemicals, pollution related effects on their reproductive performances due to mixing of discharged industrial and sewage effluents.

Certain selected small fishes of West Bengal and their nutritional benefits:

A few example of some local species from West Bengal showing their risk status are: singhi (Heteropneustes fossilis), magur (Clarias batrachus), khoira (Gadusia chapra),

Small fish diversity in rural Bengal
Figure 3. Small fish diversity in rural Bengal

mourala (Amblypharyngodon mola), chang (Channa gachua), bacha (Eutropiichthys vacha), bele (Glossogobius giures), reba (Cirrhinus reba), nados (Nandus nandus), kholse (Colisa lalia), pakal (Pancallus pancallus), baspata (Ailia coila), saral punti (Puntius sarana) and several others (Figure 3). These fishes are self-recruiting in nature and their biodiversity decline are likely to make the aquatic ecosystem more vulnerable to natural disturbances including eutrophication (Mukhopadhyay 2019); moreover, they contribute to greater variety for the farmer, by increasing the physical and economic access to food of very high biological value.

Small endemic freshwater fishes as stated above including medium and minor carps like bata, punti, maurala, colisa, etc., catfishes like magur, singhi, pabda, tangra, murrels, perch, eels, folui and several others are well known sources for vital macro and micronutrients of immense importance in human nutrition and well-being, e.g., the minor carp Labeo bata (bata) is rich in long chain n-3 PUFA containing EPA (20:5n-3) & DHA (22:6n-3) (Mukhopadhyay 2009) which have multiple health benefits like preventing arterial damage, altered immunity and degeneration leading to heart attack and cerebral stroke, painful joints to name a few. Vitamin-A, cyano cobalamine, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, iodine, potassium (accompanied by low sodium) are not adequately available in common foodstuff and certain cultured fishes generally. Cereal-based diets deficient in micronutrients are relatively high among rural children and youth where intake of small fish has a large role to play.

The amount of bio-available iron, zinc, selenium for example is dependent on the content and source in the diet as well as on their absorption during food digestion. Their absorption from the plant derived food stuff is generally very low. One of the reasons is the presence of high concentration of endogenous anti-nutritional factors like phytate. Phytate occurs naturally throughout the plant kingdom and is present in considerable quantities. About 70% of the total phosphorus within cereal grains are in the form of phytate which is largely unavailable due to the absence of the enzyme phytase in our digestive tract; phytates act as strong chelator forming protein and mineral – phytate complexes with the net result being reduced protein and mineral availability (Mukhopadhyay 2012). Likewise, cereal grains are low in the concentration of carotenoid (a precursor of vitamin A), the bio-availability of vitamin A also varies with source of carotenoid in the diets.

Restoration of certain declining fish species through development of controlled culture system:

Presently, however, concerns have arisen with regard to conservation of some of these small fishes which are on the wane and it is nice that certain NGOs, progressive fish farmers or entrepreneurs

Figure 4. With decline of small fish diversity, there will be repercussions on the rural artisans, fish sellers leading to loss of livelihood support

in West Bengal have come forward and putting their efforts to rear these fishes in sanctuary ponds named as ‘Abhoy Pukur’ – some kind of live gene bank at some selected locations. There are remarkable efforts at grass-root level to promote conservation and utilization of small fish in northern Bengal around Hemtabad near Raiganj of Uttar Dinajpur, near Tapan of Dakshin Dinajpur, in southern part of Bengal including Bankura, Purba Medinipur, North and South 24 Parganas. Organized captive breeding and culture of some species have been undertaken by the Department of Panchayet and Rural development and the Directorate of Fisheries, Govt. of West Bengal. Their observation is interesting in this regard, they note farming of small indigenous fish species (SIFS) like A. mola, C. batrachus, H. fossilis, A. testudineus along with major carps (L. rohita, Cirrhinus mrigala and Catla catla) and medium carps (L. bata and Cirrhinus reba) can be safely done. The economic benefits of this culture is enormous to get an additional crop that enhances the total revenue generated from this ecological niche.

With these conservation efforts, a group of village artisans who used to craft various kind of indigenous fish traps mostly made of bamboo with the of net mending (Figure 4) can continue earning their livelihood for the benefit of conservation based aquaculture and small fisheries management. It is important therefore that available water bodies under all panchayets or talukas to be utilized for production of small aquatic organic food sources. Moving further, social aquaculture on the line of social forestry may be introduced utilizing the small indigenous fish species. This may serve the dual purpose of conservation of these species as well as production of affordable animal protein for improved human health and assuring better demographic dividend for healthy rural children in a sustainable manner.


  1. Gopakumar, K (2003) Indian Aquaculture. In Sustainable Aquaculture Global perspective (Eds Jana B. B. and Webster C.D. Food Products Press, An imprint of The Haworth Press Inc. New York, London, Oxford. pp 1-10.
  2. Morales E.J, Little, D.C and Demaine, H 2002. Proceedings of BAU- ENRECA/DANIDA Workshop on Potentials of Small Indigenous Species of Fish (SIS) in Aquaculture & Rice-field Stocking for Improved Food & Nutrition Security in Bangladesh, 30-31 October 2002, BAU, Mymensingh, Bangladesh.(EDS Wahab, M. A, Thilsted, S H and Aoq M E. Pp 117-133.
  3. Mukhopadhyay P (2019) Aquatic Bioresources for Sustaining Future Food Security and Rural Livelihood support in Changing Environment. Agriculture World (5) : 76-83
  4. Mukhopadhyay P (2009) Fish as Nutritional Source of long chain Fatty acids. Science & Culture 75 (1-2) 53-60
  5. Mukhopadhyay P (2012) Precision Feeding for Sustained Freshwater Aquaculture Growth and Product Quality. Proceeding of 8th Biennial ANA Conference, 28-30 November 2012. (EDS Pattanaik AK, Varma AK, Dutta N, Sharma T and Kamra DN) pp- 151-160.

About Author:

Pratap Kumar Mukherjee

Pratap Mukhopadhyay



The Neotia University, West Bengal, India





Part 3

(……after part 2)

 Debregeasia longifolia (Burm.f.) Wedd.

Family: Urticaceae

A shrubby plant commonly known as ‘wild rhea’ and is one of the widely distributed members of the nettle family Urticaceae famous for stinging hairs on their leaves. However, this apparently thorny member has wide acceptance among tribal people for its sweet edible fruits. Commonly available in the Western Ghats of Southern India, the ripe fruits (known as Neerinch or Monili) are popular among various tribal groups like, Malmpandarangal, Kattunaikar and Paniyar of Kerala. The plant is known by multiple names Soh-tyrsim, Dalah esing, Madeilo, etc. In Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, the plant is known as Tushiaru and is a widely cherished among local people. Culinary use has also been reported from north-east Indian states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, and Meghalaya. The fruits can be pickled and preserved in salt, and is practiced by households in the villages of Kerala, especially by people involved in treatment with folk medicine. Nutritional analysis suggested that fibre content in the fruit is higher than common fruits like guava and pomegranate. Similarly, the fruit is a good source for natural anti-oxidants, vitamin C and iron and can be a good dietary supplement if eating raw fruit is popularized at a wider geography.

Debregeasia longifolia_wild rhea


Ipomoea aquatica Forssk.

Family: Convolvulaceae

A common and widely popular leafy vegetable in rural household, the plant with light mauve coloured lower is frequently grows unattended near water bodies or non-perennial aquatic environs almost throughout India. The species, also known as water spinach, is considered as ‘highly invasive’ and grouped under weeds by many nations. The vernacular name Karmatta, Kollamni, Kalmi, Karmi or Kalni saag (saag means green leafy vegetables) is widely known across the West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, and north-eastern states. In Andhra Pradesh and Telengana it is called as Tuti koora and leaves and young stems are in edible list of the tribal groups like Bagata, Gadaba, Konda dora, Jatapu and others. In north eastern states of Assam and Manipur, leaves, shoots, fruits or whole plants are consumed by the local Shan tribes, Meitei Manipuris’ in boiled form or in light fried format. Wide-availability of the species and its rich micronutrient content, such as iron, potassium, magnesium, and beta-carotene, thus recommended in daily dietary allowance for all categories of people, especially for children and women.

Ipomoea aquatica Forssk


Pueraria tuberosa (Willd.)DC.

Family: Fabaceae 

It is a woody climber with bright blue flower and is famous for its underground fleshy tuberous root. Commonly known as Vidarikand, it is one of the popular food items in non-conventional food arena. Communities near Hassan area of Karnataka, southern India, prefer its liquory taste and use the tuber in cooked form as vegetable which they call as Gummadi balli. Its widespread use has been reported from various north Indian states as well. In Bihar (Bankumra) flower and seeds are also eaten along with the tuberous roots. The tubers are also known to the tribals of Mayurbhanj district of Odisha as Bhuni kakharu. Similar trend is observed in Andhra Pradesh where a vast number of tribal groups namely Bagata, Konda Dora, Mali, Kotia and others has this tuber (known as Dharigummadi) in their routine diet. The Gujjars of Uttarakhand and the Vasava tribes of Gujrat use the tubers either raw or in cooked form. Usually unripe tubers are taken in raw form whereas ripe, older ones are often cooked with spices. Like any underground storage organ, the tuber is a rich source of carbohydrate (~64%) and protein (~10%) and demonstrate potent anti-oxidant properties.

Pueraria tuberosa_Vidarikand


Sesbania grandiflora (L.) Pers.

Family: Fabaceae 

It is a soft-wooded legume with open crown. The plant is very well known in the south of India as Agathi. Usually the leaves are stir-fried when they are still tender and used as an accompaniment with rice or roti. They have a bitter taste and are always cooked with grated coconut in south India. The dried leaves are also used to make tea which has medicinal properties. When the leaves are mature and old, they turn bit hard to chew and then are used as fodder. In the Konkan coast of Maharashtra, the plant is known as Agasty and the flowers and fruits are in regular culinary practice. It is also popular among the Palliyars of Tamil Nadu as young shoots and leaves are used as vegetable. In eastern India, whitish flowers are more popular (known as Bokphul), are fried and consumed in Assam and West Bengal. In Bihar, known as Basna, seeds are quite popular in tribal diet chart. Sesbania grandifora leaves are highly nutritious and have been shown to contain significant amounts of proteins, fat, carbohydrates, fiber, and minerals such as iron, calcium, and phosphorus. The young leaves are edible and are quite often used to supplement meals. The plant has also been reported to be a potent antidote for tobacco and smoking-related diseases.

Sesbania grandiflora_Agathi_Bokphul







Glimpses Of Nature And Culture

Climate worries turtle too…. 

“Climate change”…….we are really feeling it now. Be it tropical rainforest, temperate boreal forest orOlive Ridleys at Chavakkad beach by Green Habitat Kerala arctic tundra, the sun is getting mightier year after year. Not only we humans, there are reports how plants reciprocate by changing their flowering and fruiting time or their habitats, birds change their nesting habits and migration pattern, even insects are facing the threat of extinction. The list of victims stretches longer day by day and it poses a great challenge to biologists as hitherto unknown behavioral and physiological phenomena are rising up simultaneously. A fascinating example is Olive ridley turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) – one of the famous yearly visitors of the Indian sea coasts. Every year usually from November onwards, they come in large group to the Indian coast for laying eggs and raising their hatchlings. However, things do not look like the same in recent years A long term observation based on Olive Ridleys of Chavakkad beach, Kerala has detected a considerable shift in breeding season from November – March to January – March. Remarkably, a reduction in incubation period from 45-50 days to 40-42 days has also been observed. Researchers attributed the change to increase sea surface temperature and sand temperature in beach. Also, a gender imbalance, as higher temperature tends to favour female hatchling production, is also noted by researchers. So, at the extreme point we can imagine all female population which is not in an order with natural dynamics.

Handling the climate dilemma is not an easy task as it often considered at regional or global scale. However, often local actions turn out to be essential, as in case of this species, potential strategies to minimize the heat effect through nest relocation, artificial incubation, and changing the thermal gradient in beach might offer a short-lived solution.  

Image and Collector: Sujit Sundaram, N. J. James & Abdul Saleem. Green Habitat, Pavaratty, Thrissur Dst., Kerala, Pin – 680507, India  


 Guantanamo – prison turns into paradise

The name Guantanamo Bay Prison (or Gitmo) –  a majority of people recognize this internationally infamous prison belonging to the U.S.A terrorism and war detainees in no time. This prison coveringGuantanamo prison turns into marine paradise 120 sq. km of land and water area which the USA has leased at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Designated as a naval base and detention camp, the activities are completely related to military strategies, so is not an accessible place for everyone. Amidst the controversy related to the treatment of detainees and sovereignty issues with Cuba, Gitmo was also planned to shut down during President Barack Obama’s tenure to cut off the burden on the Pentagon. Although Gitmo’s future is still uncertain, there are proposals afloat to utilize this detention camp for some constructive purpose.

A joint study suggests transforming this facility to a marine conservation centre for unique Caribbean coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangrove forests, and other life forms. The region itself is a paradise for the countless biota owing to Cuba’s’ years of economic and political isolation as well as strong conservation efforts in the last few decades. The study suggests that the strategic location of the camp is perfect for monitoring the marine and terrestrial life forms as well as promoting research.  They also suggest a joint operation by the USA and Cuba to ease the strained relationship for a better ecological future of the region. 

Source: J. Roman, J. Kraska. Reboot Gitmo for U.S.-Cuba research diplomacy. Science, 2016; 351 (6279): 1258 DOI:10.1126/science.aad4247

 Image: Rajasri Ray

Collector: Rajasri Ray


Coconut at the coast….by all means

 Coconut tree and coast are synonymous for us. This lofty monocot standing near the seashore is a visual relief for tired seafarers, a phenomenal example of water-based seed dispersal and plantCoconut tree and coastal ecosystem migration, livelihood resource for coastal people, and a potential blocker for seashore erosion nowadays. Seashore erosion is a global problem and conventional remedial measures like seawall and groyne construction, sea dykes, revetments have drawbacks like high cost and environmental damage. Coconut tree, a suitable alternative, remain instrumental as soft measures of coastal erosion protection. Coastal bioengineering project in the USA has applied coconut husk (also known as coir) to make natural fibre blankets and coir rolls to prevent coastal erosion and maintain habitat and ecosystem function for coastal-adapted species. Blankets are mat-like structures where coirs are loosely woven or sometimes are stitched together with other bio-degradable materials. Coir rolls are cylindrical structures very different from blankets and nicely are packed with fibre and tied with netting, in some instance, coir fabrics with the sand-filled interior known as coir envelope are also made. These protective structures are often dotted with saplings of soil binding species so that mature plants can replace their protective functions when the main framework eventually wears out. The main advantages of using coconut are its abundance, easy to use, cost-effectiveness and acceptability. A recent example of its application can be seen at Karangjaladri village of Pangandaran Regency of Indonesia, south-east Asia. Scientists of Bandung Institute of Technology along with local villagers installed a 20-meter-long coconut husk sea-wall to arrest the loss of land near the village. Multiple coconut coir rolls were stacked and dotted with saplings of local species to prevent the coastal erosion in the long run. So, coconut at the seashore is deeply desired by all means.


Image: Rick Gibbs, Susanna Nurdjaman

Collector: Rajasri Ray


Honey, I want to eat you up !!!

 The taste of flesh is fancied by many of us. But wait, we have a like-minded companion in the bee world too! Vulture bees are the only carnivorous, obligate necrophagus bees reported to date which useVulture Bee carrion as their sole protein source. They own extremely sharp jaws which aids them to tear apart their meal. These scavenger, stingless, eusocial bees of genus Trigona, primarily three representatives T. hypogea, T. necrophaga and T. crassipes, are the only known bees which do not rely on plants as food source. The worker bees masticate the carrion, secret saliva or mandibular secretion (honey-like concoction of fruit juices) on the flesh to hydrolyze and consume it. On returning to the hive, this meat slurry is regurgitated and processed by other worker bees with their own unique digestive enzymes breaking it down into a decay-resistant glandular substance. This meat-mead mixture is then stocked in honeypots and used to feed the hive population over long periods. These bees have completely forsaken pollen gathering – the workers don’t own pollen combs on their legs. However, it is advised not to collect this honey as vulture bees store only required amount of it to sustain their hives, unlike common honeybees who are abundant producers.

Source:, Roubik DW 1982

Collector: Debarati Chakraborty


Sticky rice of extended Bengal

Divisive politics may alienate various human societies and cultures, but we often stand united owing to our shared cultural history that is quite resistant to erosion. The same holds true for the large rice-eating populations of Assam, Bangladesh, Tripura, and West Bengal, so much so that rice has been assimilated in various forms, shades and tastes. Thus, our food culture is tied with rice, from staples toSticky rice of Bengal appetizers, snacks to sweets, savories to desserts, so on. One such case is sticky rice, though sticky or waxy rice has not been a mainstay of south Asian food generally it catered various delicacies to tickling tongues of this vast region.

In Assam, the commonly used landrace of sticky rice is Bora Saul (bora means sticky), it is generally soaked, ground, and mixed with jaggery and milk to prepare various kinds of pitha (traditional sweet dish) in Assam mostly during their state festival Bihu. In Assam and also the neighboring country, Bangladesh, sticky rice also finds great use in breakfast and ceremonial dishes, comes in various avatars, where it is known as Beruin chaal (which also means sticky rice). This is quite a to-die-for rice and in great demand which farmers used to fulfill growing this rice prior to special occasions with proper care. Binni dhan (unhusked sticky rice) is another kind of sticky rice equally popular among Bangladeshis is mostly cultivated hilly tracts of Garo Pahar in Jamalpur district. The Binni is also locally appreciated to prepare rice bubbles or puffed rice (Muri / Khoi).

However, the fame and appreciation of Binni or Beruin or pitha had easily eluded borders and diffused all through into locales of Assam and Bengal alike owing to their long entwined socio-political and cultural history through the ages. Sniffing through nooks and corners of extended Bengal may also reveal striking similarities which compels us to satiate our hunger and appreciate the great diversity of food and culture.

Image courtesy: (clockwise) Wikipaedia: Ibrahim Husain Meraj – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,; Omarshehab – Own work, CC BY 2.5,; কাঠপিপঁড়ে – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,; Mohowrites – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Collector: Avik Ray